When I mentioned that I would be moving to Istanbul, Turkey to live for three months, quite a few of my friends reached out to me to tell me that Istanbul was among their favorite cities in the world. It didn’t take long for me to understand why.
Istanbul has an energy to it that is comparable to New York City. The first thing I noticed about the city was the people. The personal style and physical beauty of the men and women there were striking. Later, I found out that, like New York, Istanbul has a bustling fashion scene and professional models from all over the world walk the streets there.
The next thing I noticed was the diversity of cultures within the city. Istanbul is split between a European side and an Asian side. Because of this geographical feature, both cultures are reflected in the food, the architecture, and the people themselves. For example, it was not uncommon to see a Russian model wearing a short leather skirt walking next to an Islamic woman wearing a full burqa.
I think what struck me the most about Istanbul was the food. It really didn’t matter where I ate in the city. The food was always good. Usually, I find that a foreign country does a great job preparing traditional food, but a lousy job when they try to make other country’s dishes. This was not the case in Istanbul. Whether I was eating shawarma, Italian pasta, or American hamburgers, it was all delicious. I don’t think I had a single meal that wasn’t inexpensive by American standards and thoroughly enjoyable.
One thing that did take some getting used to were the crowds. There are so many people in Istanbul. The city is noticeably a popular destination with tourists and is home to over fifteen million inhabitants. If you are an avid people watcher, such as myself, it’s great fun to see them all coming and going. If you are less inclined to large crowds, this may not be the place for you.
I found the throngs of people to be a little annoying when visiting some of the more popular tourist destinations. Trying to see the famous mosque, the Hagia Sophia, for instance, proved difficult. When I arrived to see the long lines waiting to get inside of the mosque, I gave up and settled for a few pictures outside.
One of the more touristy areas that are, in my humble opinion, absolutely worth the crowds is Istiklal Street. Here, I found fantastic restaurants and coffee shops, unique shopping opportunities (the antique bookshop was my favorite), and street vendors and performers there to entertain and sell their wares. Istiklal Street is the perfect place to experience the city’s mixture of cultures and energy.
Slightly less crowded and energetic, but equally enjoyable was the Basilica Cistern. This ancient underground reservoir serves as a great reminder of Istanbul’s long history when it was once known as Byzantium and then Constantinople. It was also a really cool place to take some great pictures.
Napoleon Bonaparte once famously said of the city, “If the earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.” Having lived there for three months, I now think I understand what he meant by this. Istanbul isn’t trying to be like other cities. It has its own style and is unapologetic about it. Though the people who inhabit the city or travel to it as a tourist are all incredibly different, everyone seems accepting of one another’s differences. The people walking the streets seem genuinely happy and content.
There are plenty of museums, galleries, stores, and restaurants in Istanbul to keep your schedule full. But if you have the time, I recommend taking a more relaxed approach. Grab a fresh fish sandwich by the river, take a seat on one of the benches, and watch the city in all of its glory. Grab a cup of tea or a glass of wine and strike up a conversation with one of the locals. Whatever your approach, Istanbul is sure to surprise and delight you. Like many of my friends before me, I can now say that it is one of my favorite cities in the world.
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